In return to frugal mind-set, do-it-yourself on rise

The Baltimore Sun

Use it up - Wear it out - Make it do!

It's the credo that your parents or grandparents lived by. Posters from the World War II era screamed it at careless consumers and those without money to consume.

Now, as more Americans have been swept into what some have dubbed the nation's "Great Recession" - and many more worry that it is only a matter of time - this mantra of frugality is once again becoming a way of life: a call to thrift echoing beyond foreclosed homes and growing unemployment lines. From home maintenance to sewing to gardening, people across the nation are increasingly taking cost-savings measures into their own hands.

"We are getting the real do-it-yourselfers now," said Debbie Hernandez, who has headed Home Depot's do-it-yourself clinics in Glendale, Ariz., for 13 years. "I hear a lot of people saying that at one time, maybe last year or the year before, they would have hired it out. But now, they want to do it themselves because times are tougher, and the information is there for the taking."

Home Depot offers clinics in painting, tiling, toilets and cabinet glazing. During the past year, stores around the country have reported larger classes, especially in do-it-herself home repair, according to Tia Robinson, a spokeswoman for Home Depot.

"Everything is tight," said Brian Arnett, whose ill-timed purchase of a condo in Reston, Va., this summer left him strapped for cash. "I'm doing stuff to save money that I never thought of before."

For the 25-year-old IT technician, who is currently paying off about $50,000 in student loans, that includes opening the blinds instead of turning on the lights, shortening showers, cutting coupons and, on a recent Saturday morning, attending a do-it-yourself plumbing class at a local high school.

"I feel like I'm such a dork now," Arnett said. "I know that if I cut out $5 worth of coupons every Sunday, I've more than paid for the Sunday [newspaper]."

Arnett is far from alone in his efforts to save a little dough.

From Virginia to California, continuing and adult education programs are also enrolling more students in their home, auto and bike repair courses.

Arnett's weekend plumbing class in Fairfax, Va., had to be expanded this year to accommodate an increased interest in leaky faucets, stubborn toilets and problem pipes.

"To take this class is only $75. To have a plumber just walk through your door is at least $90," said Jackie Hertz, 61, who also got up early on Saturday morning to learn some of the finer points of home plumbing.

In St. Paul, Minn., at least one continuing education program had to add another bicycle repair section after fuel prices spiked this summer. And, in California, the Baldwin Park adult and community education program has seen a 24 percent increase in enrollment in their sewing classes this year, causing them to tack on about four more afternoon sessions to the schedule.

"That class was actually started because our students wanted to make clothes for their family," senior director John Kerr said. "It was really an economics thing."

Of course, in the free-for-all world of do-it-yourself projects and repairs, cost savings can still prove elusive.

Dick Waters, a laboratory quality improvement specialist in Springfield, Ill., has spent the past 20 years patching up his 100-year-old house.

"Something seemingly simple like hanging up a picture can turn into replacing a wall, as, in fact, it has," Waters said.

During one repair job, Waters set out to fix a dripping faucet, but after shattering the porcelain sink, ended up completely replacing the faucet, sink and much of the bathroom plumbing.

"The hope is that it will be cheaper if you do it yourself," Waters said. "But I don't think it has ever panned out that way."

Patrick Colmer, a plumber in the Washington area, recently helped out a customer who attempted to repair the gasket between his toilet and the floor and instead ended up splitting the toilet bowl in half.

"My main advice would be that if you are not absolutely certain about what you are doing, call a professional," Colmer said.

At least some are following his advice. At a time of plummeting car sales, motor vehicle repairs are on the rise, according to recent figures from the Department of Commerce.

"Bad times are always good for us," said Robert Green, shop manager for Fairfax Auto Parts, who added that he has been working longer hours to keep up with the increased business. "People start fixing their cars instead of replacing them."

In the past three months, Green has seen a roughly 15 percent increase in sales, which has amounted to a six-year high for the same time period.

The trend toward self-sufficiency has extended beyond the obvious - fixing engines and re-patching clothes. Web sites offer advice on everything from the creative - brewing your own shampoos and baking your own bread - to the extreme: tips on how to make van dwelling work for you.

These penny-pinching inclinations have not gone unnoticed by the country's major retailers, who have watched their sales plummet for months.

Whole Foods, an upscale organic grocer with prices to match, is now offering customers "value tours" to show shoppers how they can save money. Wal-Mart has hired a family financial expert to offer its customers free money-saving advice and shopping tips. Kroger, a retail food chain, also offers its shoppers customized coupons sent electronically to their homes.

Those TiVo-less few, who might actually have to sit through a commercial, might have noticed a recent change in those messages, too. In September, for instance, the mega-store Target launched its "New Day" campaign to tap into the zeitgeist and emphasize low prices. One commercial shows images and comments such as: a man biking to work - the new commute, bike $59.99; a woman doing sit-ups outside - the new gym, the new gym ball $11.88; and a father cutting his child's hair - the new barbershop, clippers $14.99.

"What we are seeing now is marketers really starting to shift what they are communicating," said Gary Bamossy, a professor of marketing at Georgetown University. "They are expressing the value of their product in dollars saved rather than some other emotional value like it being an elite brand."

Bamossy says the return to a quasi Depression-era take on consuming is not necessarily a bad thing - or something that should be temporary - as the dismal state of the economy inevitably will be.

"American consumers are the most-spending and least-saving consumers in the world," Bamossy said. "So I think this is a wake-up call for a lot of them."

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